If you’re a fan of video games, and you’re a fan of movies, then you’ve probably noticed that every single time Hollywood tries to turn a successful game into a blockbuster motion picture they seem botch the job. Not only that but they botch it really badly, with one film after another that seems destined to go down on someone’s halfway respectable list of the worst movies ever made.
It doesn’t take much effort to conjure up the names of the bigger disappointments. Take a look at SUPER MARIO BROS, DOUBLE DRAGON, STREET FIGHTER: THE MOVIE, DOOM, STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN LI and any of the Uwe Boll travesties like HOUSE OF THE DEAD, BLOODRAYNE, ALONE IN THE DARK, DUNGEON SIEGE and POSTAL if you don’t believe me. That list keeps growing, and anybody who saw last month’s drab and misguided ASSASSIN’S CREED adaptation can attest that the film industry doesn’t seem to be getting much better at translating video game thrills into cinematic sensations.
And yet, whenever somebody brings up this old “video game movie curse,” there’s always a temptation for somebody to argue the point. It’s human nature, and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that impulse in principle, but there is logistical problem with arguing against the idea that, so far at least, “video game movies suck.” There simply aren’t a lot of examples that refute the claim. What’s worse, the few examples we have are nothing to brag about.
Which brings us to Paul W.S. Anderson’s MORTAL KOMBAT, the film that many people seem to agree is the best video game movie ever made. It’s a straightforward adaptation of a fairly straightforward game, and it’s basically just the Bruce Lee classic ENTER THE DRAGON but with superpowers and monsters. That is not a criticism. It’s a fantastic premise for an action film.
But although MORTAL KOMBAT may be one of the better video game movies (if not, arguably, the best), it’s still a pretty embarrassing title to hold. Not just because the other video game movies are awful – although most of them are – but more importantly because MORTAL KOMBAT isn’t very much better. It’s an immature, awkwardly plotted, often miscast action-adventure with CGI that was pretty questionable when it came out in 1995 and hasn’t gotten any better with age.
That’s not to say that MORTAL KOMBAT isn’t a perfectly enjoyable matinee movie aimed at 12-year-olds, but it’s incredibly sad that the quality of video game movies hasn’t sufficiently improved in over 20 years to the point that MORTAL KOMBAT isn’t considered an embarrassing example of the genre. The clunky exposition, groaning jokes (“Nice dress!”) and dopey story still look pretty good when placed side-by-side with grand scale embarrassments like DOOM and RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE but when you’re trying to prove a point, and prove that not all video game movies are bad, maybe picking a film that’s merely less bad than all the competition isn’t the best way to go.
And yes, you can take your pick of other, better-than-average video game adaptations. NEED FOR SPEED isn’t an altogether unwatchable car chase movie, but that’s not much of a compliment either. PRINCE OF PERSIA has some cheerful Disney adventure shenanigans but it’s also egregiously miscast and too awkwardly adapted from its brilliant source material to stand out either. Even SILENT HILL, which looks absolutely horrific (in a good way), doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny, since its alterations to the video game’s story prevent all that haunting imagery from making much sense. (The buxom undead nurses and giant masculine sword-wielding monster represent the SILENT HILL 2 protagonist’s stifled widower libido; they have nothing to do with a happily married mother’s anxiety about losing her adopted child.)
Yes, art forms are supposed to grow, and yes, adaptation is an art form. Take a look at superhero movies and I think you’ll be pleased as punch to see that what we would have considered the best superhero movies ever made back in the mid-1990s have since been dwarfed by superior motion pictures in the last 20 years. So let’s be kind and say that MORTAL KOMBAT is about as good as the original BLADE. But if BLADE was still as good as superhero movies got, would that really be much of a feather in the genre’s cap today? It’s a competent action thriller but it doesn’t elevate the material or have any character to speak of. Can’t we do better?
Obviously, video games can do a LOT better, and anyone with an even passing familiarity with the medium can probably point to a dozen or more games that have told their stories better than the MORTAL KOMBAT movie, or any other video game movie, or a lot of other movies for that matter. If games like THE LAST OF US, BIOSHOCK, RED DEAD REDEMPTION, THE SECRET OF MONKEY ISLAND, MASS EFFECT, FALLOUT 3, FINAL FANTASY VII, PSYCHONAUTS and SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS can make us laugh, cry, and feel all of the other respective “feels,” why would we want to brag about a video game adaptation that only captures the gist of the action, and little (or none) of the emotional impact?
Of course, if all of those video games – and more, many more – are so fantastic, the question must be asked, why do we even need a great video game movie? And the answer of course is that technically we don’t, but at this point, after this many years, the film industry’s persistent inability to understand what makes so many video games great has created an ugly stigma. Video games may not need movie adaptations to validate their artistic merits, but they do need the motion picture industry to stop making a mockery of the medium on a semi-regular basis. We need good video game movies because the bad ones have become a genuine embarrassment, and still represent a black mark on the medium’s permanent record.
So when one of the best defenses against that humiliation is “MORTAL KOMBAT was pretty okay twenty years ago,” we have to finally acknowledge that we don’t have much of a defense at all. The only thing to do is make better video game movies now, and in the future. Let’s hope somebody in the film industry has the talent to finally pull that off.